Psychological barriers to safety

Cognitive shortcuts, senior leadership behaviours may be harming your culture

Psychological barriers to safety
Renée Gendron

If everyone is exposed to risk and if everyone has the potential to have a severe injury or worse, a fatality, then why are some workplaces less likely to take workplace safety as seriously as others?

The answer lies in understanding cognitive biases. Individuals make thousands of decisions on a daily basis. If we were to consciously decide on each one, we would spend our mental energy and become fatigued in a short period of time. It’s called decision fatigue. To save time and energy, adults use decision-making shortcuts. Sometimes it comes in the form of a habit, you don’t really count how many scoops of coffee you put in the coffee machine, you’ve done it enough times to just eyeball the coffee levels.

It happens that our decision-making becomes erroneous and biases set in. We aren’t necessarily aware that our decision has been impacted and we think that this method of acting is standard — until it leads to harmful results. Sometimes it takes many problems before we critically analyze what is causing all of the workplace hazards.



Human beings are social animals. We want to fit into the social groupings around us. If those in a position of authority and responsibility don’t see the importance of workplace safety, they are sending messages to those around them that it is alright for others to also not care about workplace safety. The subordinates then defer to the opinion of their superiors, often to their own detriment.

You must have senior leadership understand the importance of workplace safety. If their primary concerns are dollars and cents, then have precise numbers as to how much accidents are costing them, how much it is damaging the brand, the size of the fines imposed by the Ministry of Labour, and so on.

If senior leadership still doesn’t place much importance on workplace safety, ask more questions about why. Perhaps leadership is concerned changes in safety practices will mean updating systems and equipment, and there is concern from those in power that they don’t know how to operate the new devices. Perhaps it stems from a fear of being left out or behind, that a later generation is encroaching on the old guard. It could also be something entirely different, but keep asking questions until you get to the root of the issue why senior leadership isn’t concerned enough about workplace safety to change their attitudes.


This decision-making bias occurs when people place a disproportionate amount of importance on the most recent information while neglecting the context and previous data. For example, latest government statistics may indicate workplace accidents are down. Some may then erroneously argue that all procedures currently in place are sufficient for adequate safety.

The problem with this analysis is that it lacks context. Last month’s statistics don’t say that workplace accidents were down because fewer people were working in the field. Or that more companies had switched to a different technology and only those corporations using that equipment experienced a drop in accidents. Or that particularly lousy weather brought work in one industry to a halt, therefore skewing results.

Whenever new information is presented, always ask for how it relates to the context and how the data was compiled. Many small details will come to light and provide for a more productive interpretation of the new information.


Safety is as much about behaviour as it is about the decisions that lead to the response. By picking apart how you make your choices and making them more robust, you’re improving workplace safety.